How the polar vortex chilled restaurant sales

A look at Technomic data in the Chicago market shows how much the frigid weather hurt traffic.
Photograph: Shutterstock

A brief but ugly bout of frigid, arctic air swept through the U.S. in late January, sending temperatures plunging, especially in the Midwest, where temperatures were well below zero.

That kept a lot of people home—except delivery drivers—and hurt restaurant sales, according to an analysis by Technomic, using Transaction Insights data.

Technomic analyzed sales and traffic in the Chicago area during the week of the polar vortex and compared them with sales and traffic in the weeks leading up to the event. The Chicago area was hit particularly hard, with temperatures as low as 33 below zero and windchills of 50 below zero.

The analysis found that sales slowed considerably as the temperatures fell.  

Quick-service restaurant sales declined 6.8% compared with the three weeks before that, while traffic slowed by 11.1%.

Full-service restaurants fared worse, with sales declining 8.3% and traffic down 11.7%.

The same thing happened at convenience stores and retailers in the area, where both sales and traffic plunged.

People stayed home. And many places simply shut their doors as schools and workplaces shut down.

“There were places that were closed that don’t normally close,” said Jonathan Lutkowski, vice president of research and insights for Technomic, a sister company of Restaurant Business. “Like Trader Joe’s announcing they were closing Wednesday through noon Thursday. I was in need of a new phone and I couldn’t go to a Verizon store in downtown [Chicago] that was open until Thursday. They were preemptively closing for a day and a half.”

Not everybody was slowing.

Pizza sales rose 6.4% during that week, and third-party delivery services sales rose 5.9% and traffic increased 7%.

To be sure, some other factors influenced the numbers. For one thing, that was the week of the Super Bowl, which, of course, probably pulled up pizza and delivery sales quite a bit. That also influenced restaurant sales as consumers shifted their dining habits on the day of the game.

But delivery companies frequently do well during cold snaps because people sit at home and have someone else brave the cold weather instead.

Indeed, the numbers from Chicago are far more extreme than other markets where the vortex was not as severe. In Los Angeles, for instance, quick-service sales fell just 0.2% the week of the vortex, and full-service restaurants’ sales fell 1.4%.

The data backs up restaurateurs’ long-held contention that weather is a major influence on their performance.

“The closures were atypical,” said Adam Roberts, senior program manager for Technomic. “I didn’t go out a ton that day. Some Potbellys and Starbucks were closed. A lot of places were closed.”

The performance of the week, plus tougher comparisons and other events such as the government shutdown, helped pull sales during January down 5.2% for the 200 largest chains, according to Technomic. Traffic fell 6.8%.

For the past three months, sales have fallen 1% for the Technomic Top 200, while traffic has fallen 4.1%.

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